Calm Mom: 5 Ways to Be a Present Parent
Posted on July 25 2023
Authors: Julie Kailus
Life before baby: Long breakfast over the New York Times; light lunch with friends downtown; 45 minutes of cardio; Thai food with Tom at 6 p.m.
Life after kids: 5:00 a.m. wake-up call from sick one-year-old; post-diaper-explosion cleaning intensive; temper tantrum mediation in mall parking lot; microwaved leftover mac and cheese dinner; glass of wine times two.
Let’s face it, life with kids is challenging. Yet you see those moms who seem to breeze through it all, unflappable. They have an annoyingly effortless way of seeming cool, collected, kind, peaceful and in control — even when surrounded by chaos.
Try these five tips and make being a calm mom look like child’s play.
1. Focus on right now
“Kids can smell a rat when we pretend we’re present,” says Mimi Doe, author of Busy but Balanced and 10 Principles for Spiritual Parenting and founder of spiritualparenting.com.
Turn off the cell phone and the radio when you’re in the car and use that time to connect with your child, she says. Try hanging a tag in your car that reads “Here, now” or “Just this moment.”
Or use the “awareness continuum,” says Mara Kormylo, a mother of two, licensed clinical social worker and adjunct professor of Family Systems at Naropa University in Boulder, CO. “Simply ask yourself over and over ‘what am I aware of right now?’
“This question can help mothers tap into what’s happening in their bodies, like clenching jaws or holding breath,” Kormylo continues, “as well as what’s happening around them, like the sky looks incredibly blue today.”
2. Give kids some space
“Your kids are the fish, and you create their aquarium,” says Kimberly Peterson, a mother and licensed mental health professional in Seattle who specializes in Buddhist existential therapy for parents. “They need to be able to swim around.”
Look at how you might be “re-parenting” yourself, perhaps because of some shortcoming you perceive in the way your own mother parented you.
“The more self-awareness a mom possesses, the less she will project her own struggles onto her children,” says Kormylo. “It’s unhealthy to judge a child for traits that a mother possesses and denies in herself.”
Accept your children’s individuality and separateness from you. “Healthy attachment is slightly detached,” says Peterson. “It’s good to miss your kids.”
Over-parenting is another non-calm-mom pattern to watch out for. One example: Feeling compelled to come immediately to your child’s aid the moment he or she whimpers.
“With my first child, I interpreted his crying as bad,” says mother of three Elizabeth Torres, an assistant attending psychologist at a Harvard Medical School teaching hospital who specializes in helping women adjust to motherhood. “I came to realize there are plenty of reasons kids cry,” she says. “Now I wait. I know the mind is just doing its habit.”
“Being aware that things are always changing — including my mood — and knowing that it’s temporary helps cultivate calmness,” agrees Robyn Waldeck, 40, a stay-at-home mom from Concord, MA. “A tantrum is going to pass, and that makes the moment more tolerable.”
Try creating physical space in your home, too. For example, clear off the kitchen table every night and make it a sacred place for mealtime, suggests Doe.
Over-scheduling is a recipe for a short fuse. You don’t need to do it all every day.
Look at what you can “undo” in your day, says Peterson. Look at the week’s chores and decide: No vacuuming this week! “I don’t know anyone who’s died from a messy house or spending the day in their pajamas,” she says.
Or put aside your to-do list altogether (literally and mentally) on a Saturday for a while — even for just an hour. Choose one activity to do with your kids, and do it mindfully. Be childlike, really listen to your kids, and focus your attention on what you’re doing together.
Margie Sullivan, 44, of Acton, Mass., shared how she dedicated a few blissful hours one day last summer to taking her six-year-old son to an organic produce stand, discussing where food comes from and how it grows, and returning home for an evening of taste-testing.
Hold your plans lightly, too, says Torres. “It’s OK to acknowledge what you’re feeling about your plans going to hell,” she laughs, “but allow things to slip away anyway.”
4. Nurture your non-mom identity
“Moms are caught up in the idea that they are this huge mammary gland,” says Peterson. “They lose themselves.”
Forget June Cleaver. Ignore the voice in your head about what constitutes a perfect mother, and just be you. Make time to reconnect with what you loved to do B.C. (before children) — and don’t feel guilty about it! Join a book club and actually go to the meetings. Take dance lessons. Plan a spa day with your girlfriends every so often.
Also cultivate candid friendships that don’t focus on competition, advises Sullivan, who connects with friends even if only via “phone therapy,” also known as leaving long voicemails for one another.
If “take a deep breath” is something you try to remember to do when stress starts mounting, you’re on the right track. Numerous studies have shown the benefits of proper breathing and employing specific breathing techniques. They range from lower blood pressure, increased lung capacity and a strengthened immune system to reduced stress and improved focus and concentration, to name a few. Babies should be our guide. At birth, children naturally breathe deeply from the belly rather than shallowly from the chest like most adults.
In addition to remembering to “take a deep breath,” filling the belly first followed by the chest with air, try a deep sigh, letting out a natural sound of relief as air exits the lungs. The calming “ocean breath” sounds like a gentle snore as it passes slowly through the back of the throat. Bruce Gottlieb, a Boulder, CO-based father and licensed clinical social worker in private psychotherapy practice suggests “grounding” yourself first by placing your feet on the floor, noticing the things around you to orient to the surroundings and then sighing deeply to help level out the shortness of breath created during a stressful situation. Or simply stop, close your eyes, and focus on your breath and nothing else for one minute.
In her book Buddhism for Mothers, Sarah Napthali says you can also apply this wisdom in other ways. Feel the ground while walking, taste your food, even notice your body’s sensations while standing in line at the bank.